This week we took a step back to think about Black British cinema, but not before picking up on the questions of diaspora discussed last week.
William Safran argues that they are six key characteristics of diaspora:
- Diaspora refers to people who have ‘been dispersed from a specific original “center” to two or more “peripheral,” or foreign, regions’
- Diaspora refers to these dispersed communities when they ‘retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland – its physical location, history, and achievements’
- Diasporic communities believe that ‘they are not – and perhaps cannot be – fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it’
- Diasporas overwhelmingly ‘regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return – when conditions are appropriate’
- Diasporic communities ‘believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration or their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity’
- Diasporic communities often ‘relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship’
Robin Cohen can provide four further tweaks to our understanding of the concept:
- Diasporas may include ‘groups that scatter for aggressive or voluntaristic purposes’, including revolutionary minorities struggling for a homeland and those travelling for trade reasons
- Diasporic consciousness depends upon a ‘strong tie to the past or a block to assimilation in the present and future’
- Diasporas are also defined positively – diasporic consciousness recognises ‘the positive virtues of retaining a diasporic identity’, as well as a ‘tension between an ethnic, a national and a transnational identity’ that is ‘often creative [and] enriching’
- Members of a diaspora share ‘a collective identity in a place of settlement, putative or real homeland … and with co-ethnic members in other countries’
And finally, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur argue that diaspora can be understood as a critique of nation and globalization:
- Diasporas transmit information, finance, remitted capital and desire across the international borders of nation-states, connecting to those left behind
- Diasporas are also global capitalist economic formations created by push/pull factors of national economies, regional trading blocs, and other global forces (outmigration and remittance, outsourcing of labour, importation of multinational corporations)
- Ultimately, diasporas may be produced by power, but it is not always able to control what it produces
As these authors show, diaspora is a complex, contested and sometimes fuzzy concept – and although this can be frustrating when you want to use the idea/term with precision, it is ultimately a good thing since it invites you into a conversation about its meaning, it gives a much bigger picture of human movement around the globe, both historically and in the present moment, and it keeps you from slipping into the kind of simple-minded ‘thinking’ about migration that mainstream media typically evokes in contexts of crisis and panic.
In the 1960s-80s, ‘Black British’ was adopted as an identity by many Britons from the Asian, African and Caribbean diasporas. It was an umbrella term devised and used
not only to trample on a history of negation, but also to find a cohesive voice in order to fight collectively for greater political rights and better representation. It was the shared experience of both colonialism and British racism which united Black British citizens and allowed them to construct an identity for themselves. (Malik 204)
In the 1960s, occasional isolated examples of Black British cinema appeared, typically narrative shorts – such as Lionel Ngakane’s 29-minute Jemima and Johnny (1963) and Lloyd Reckord’s 12-minute Ten Bob in Winter (1963) – or short documentaries – such as Horace Ové’s 46-minute Baldwin’s Nigger (1969), featuring James Baldwin and Dick Gregory, and his 60-minute concert movie Reggae (1970), featuring the Pyramids, Pioneers, Black Faith, Millie, Maytals and Desmond Dekker.
The gradually emerging Black British cinema has been described as ‘the cinema of duty’ – as Cameron Bailey (qtd in Malik 203–4) explains:
Social issue in content, documentary-realist in style, firmly responsible in intention – [the cinema of duty] positions its subjects in direct relation to social crisis, and attempts to articulate “problems” and “solutions to problems” within a framework of centre and margin, white and non-white communities. The goal is often to tell buried or forgotten stories, to write unwritten histories, to “correct” the misrepresentations of the mainstream.
That James Baldwin should then appear in one of the first Black British films is not insignificant, given his own struggle as a writer with the burden of representation, and against being positioned as a spokesperson for African Americans; also, that as a gay author writing about gay and bisexual men (e.g., Giovanni’s Room (1956)), he opens up the importance of intersectionality even when it is strategically important to draw on a larger political identity, such as Black British.
Although it is often easy in retrospect to bemoan texts that are burdened with dutifulness, Jim Pines (again qtd in Malik 204) reminds us that
Such films are important for the way in which they “answered back” to … the “official race relations narrative” … by offering an alternative view of diasporic experience.
In 1975, Horace Ové made the first feature film by a Black British director, Pressure, co-written by Sam Selvon. Broadly neo-realist in style, it follows Tony (Herbert Norville), a second generation Black Briton, whose parents migrated from Trinidad, and captures the day-to-day experience, the lived texture, of blackness in a white racist country. We watched the agonising scene in which Tony goes for a job interview at the county council for a junior accountancy post, and no one was expecting a black teenager to apply. Similar films soon followed, such as Black Joy (Simmons 1977) and Babylon (Rosso 1981); and the first British Asian film, A Private Enterprise (Peter Smith 1975).
Such films tended to fall back into depicting characters as ‘trapped between cultures’, with assimilation into Britishness as the best outcome, and into thinking in overly simplistic terms of positive and negative images (as if there were some kind of single objective position from which such judgments could be made). Also, by adopting social realist visual and narrative style, which tend to be invisible to viewers, the films tended to have the effect of reinforcing the notion that ‘this is the way it is’.
In the 1980s, Black British Cinema can be understood in terms of the development of two production sectors: commercial independent production companies, such as Kuumba Productions, Anancy Films, Penumbra Productions, and Social Film and Video, which were commissioned by mainstream television to produce programming; and grant-aided or subsidised workshops, such as Sankofa, Ceddo, Black Audio Film Collective, Retake, Star, Birmingham Film and Video Workshop, which were – among other things – committed to training people to make films. The workshop sector tended to produce more experimental films (including documentary) rather than narrative features, although this was partly a consequence of what funding bodies were interested in; and as John Akomfrah and others have noted, the sector’s freedom from commercial imperatives gave filmmakers time and space to think, be critical, develop new modes of representing Black people.
And in the 1980s and 1990s, Black British cinema began to emerge as a significant – and commercial – phenomenon, with such films as Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears 1985), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears 1987), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), Wild West (Attwood 1992), Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993) and Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995). Still struggling with the burden of representation, and with the need to be financially successful, they nonetheless tried to address identity in often complex terms. As Sarita Malik writes,
They refuse a simple focus on racial politics and acknowledge other facets of identity. They are multilayered and complex films, not only in terms of narrative, but also in terms of genre, style and film form. As such, they render redundant those critical discourses which depend on the rigid dichotomies of Black versus White, negative versus positive, representative versus unrepresentative, realism versus fantasy, and so on. (210–11)
In the 1990s and 2000s, Black British cinema effectively split in two – partly as a consequence of a broader cultural shift from collective to identity politics. Currently, we have in effect black British cinema and British Asian cinema. The former tends to be comprised of films about inner city deprivation and criminality. Drawing on social problem and gangster traditions/genres, and influenced by hip-hop and US ghetto movies (plus La Haine), it is now sometimes called ‘urban’ film. Examples include Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shank (Ali 2010), Come Down (Huda 2010) and My Brother the Devil (El Haisani 2012). British Asian cinema instead tends to deal with cultural/religious traditionalism vs. secular liberalism, and take the form of social comedies, interethnic romances and Bollywood-style melodrama. In part this is a consequence of a tradition of families attending cinemas together, of British Asians buying and running cinemas that show imported Indian films, and of the role British Indian cinema plays in what has been called pan-Indian cinema – that is Bollywood and other Indian cinemas as well as films produced within the Indian diaspora, such as the films of Indian-Canadian Deepa Mehta. Examples include Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993), My Son the Fanatic (Prasad 1997), Sixth Happiness (Hussein 1997), East is East (O’Donnell 1999), Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002), Bend it Like Beckham (Chadha 2002), Love + Hate (Savage 2006), Brick Lane (Gavron 2007), Four Lions (Morris 2010), It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (Chadha 2010) and West is West (DeEmmony 2010).
In this context of diaspora, Black British Cinema and the emergence of identity politics and intersectionality, we took a look at Stephen Frears My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), written by Hanif Kureishi. Like Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, it is a film uninterested in touristic views of London. Set primarily in a South London working class neighbourhood, it focuses on the complex relationship between a British Asian middle class and a white working class, and in intergenerational tensions between first- and second-generation British Asians, and in the breakdown of Black British identity, during the period of Thatcher and yuppies. Oh, and it is also about a queer interracial romance.
This mixture – and the history of white racist violence it outlines – combines to offer a vision of London, and of Britain and Britishness, that is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is right next door to – and a million miles from – Passport to Pimlico. Most importantly, it argues that identities, whether of individuals or groups, of neighbourhoods, cities or countries, are always already diverse, hybrid and in transition.
In the final two weeks of the module, we will read Zadie Smith’s NW (2012).
Core critical reading: Malik, Sarita. “Beyond ‘The Cinema of Duty’? The Pleasure of Hybridity: Black British Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.” Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema. Ed. Andrew Higson. London: Cassell, 1996. 202–15.
Recommended critical reading
Alexander, Karen. “Black British Cinema in the 1990s: Going, Going, Gone.” British Cinema of the 90s. Ed. Robert Murphy. London: BFI, 2002. 109–14.
Braziel, Jana Evans and Anita Mannur, eds, Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
Givani, June. “A Curator’s Conundrum: Programming ‘Black Film’ in 1980s–1990s Britain.” The Moving Image 4.1 (2004): 60–75.
Parekh, Bhikhu. Rethinking Multiculturalism. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006.
Pines, Jim. “The Cultural Context of Black British Cinema.” Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr, Manthia Diawara and Ruth H. Lindeborg. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996. 183–93.
Rattansi, Ali. Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Safran, William. ‘Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return’, Diaspora 1.1 (1991): 83-89
Sawhney, Cary Rajinder. “‘Another Kind of British’: An Exploration of British Asian Films.” Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 58–61.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
For contemporary British Asian fiction, try Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Aamer Hussein’s Turquoise (2002), Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), Zahid Hussain’s The Curry Mile (2006), Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (2006), Robin Yassin-Kassab’s The Road from Damascus (2009), Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material (2013) and Khavita Bhanot’s Too Asian, Not Asian Enough: An Anthology of New British Asian Fiction (2011).
Memoirs such as Zaiba Malik’s We Are a Muslim, Please (2010) are also of interest.
British Asian cinema includes Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears 1987), Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993), My Son the Fanatic (Prasad 1997), Sixth Happiness (Hussein 1997), East is East (O’Donnell 1999), Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002), Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Love + Hate (Savage 2006), Brick Lane (Gavron 2007), Four Lions (Morris 2010), It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (Chadha 2010) and West is West (DeEmmony 2010).
Multicultural Britain is also on display in films such as A Room for Romeo Brass (Meadows 1999), South West 9 (Parry 2001) and Ae Fond Kiss (Loach 2004).